Breathing easy in India

Updated Friday 28th March 2008

In spite of the chaos and the variety of vehicles, India may be greener than the UK when it comes to traffic pollution.

Since my early visits to India in the mid 1990s it is true to say that there has been something of a revolution in air quality in many of the cities here. In my last blog I mentioned the Taj Mahal. Vehicles are now banned from within 0.5 km of the fragile marble structure lest pollution destroys its beauty. This ban is complete and even the surrounding lawns were being cut by oxen pulling an industrial sized mower, instead of the usual noisy and dirty petrol-driven contraptions.

Polluting vehicles are banned from the Taj Mahal, so mowing green is the order of the day. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Bob Spicer
Polluting vehicles are banned from the Taj Mahal, so mowing green is the order of the day

However in Delhi in 1998 I remember literally choking on black soot-laden air in the evening rush hour. Most of the pollution was coming from the small three-wheeled autorickshaws or “tuk-tuks”. These ran on low-grade fossil fuel that was inefficiently burned in unsophisticated engines. Now all that has changed. In a draconian move, at the time unpopular but necessary, such vehicles were banned from the road across India and replaced with tuk-tuks running on compressed natural gas (CNG). This burns cleaner without the sooty particulates and can be made from renewable sources such as farm waste.

In Agra I saw what must have been close to a hundred tuk-tuks waiting in line to be filled with CNG. These vehicles, and their slightly larger cousins the Vikrams (which also run on CNG) provide a valuable public service in that for the modest sum of around 8 rupees (approximately 10p) you can be taken across town some 4km. This is often an exciting ride dodging in and out of the traffic, going the wrong way up dual carriageways and careering around the inevitable cow, buffalo or even elephant. However in a Vikram almost always you are sharing the experience with up to ten others crammed into a space about the size of the interior of a smallest of UK family cars - friendly, but very efficient.

Upon my return to Lucknow I went to the BBC News website to catch up on world events only to find an email there from someone recently returned from India. They had been stunned by the apparent road chaos here and complained that any attempt by the government to encourage “green” behaviour in the UK would be entirely negated by traffic growth in countries like India.

This is an often-used excuse for us in the more affluent parts of the world to do nothing in respect of tackling climate change. However it betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of traffic here. In India per capita private car ownership is a mere fraction of what it is in the UK, the cars are, on the whole, much smaller, and the vast majority of vehicles are, like the tuk-tuks and Vikrams, public service vehicles.

In Lucknow at least 20% of road vehicles are pedal rickshaws operated by farmers who rent the rickshaws by the day for around 30 rupees and make a living between sowing and harvesting taking people around the city in a low pollution, low carbon, way. Scooters and small motorcycles also abound. Although not very clean, they have a far better fuel consumption than the average UK car which on the commute runs tend to carry only the driver.

To be sure, as the Indian economy grows the car manufacturers will do their best to encourage the new Indian affluent to indulge their fantasies of the great green outdoors by driving all over it and destroying it further. TV ads here show a big, bright, shiny 4x4 charging across pristine wetland wilderness churning it into a quagmire, all in the name of appreciating “the environment”.

If only one in a hundred Indians bought such a vehicle, and did as the ads suggest, it would mean 10 million of them trashing the countryside. The antisocial consequences of owning such vehicles for purely leisure purposes, whether in the countryside or in towns (where, if you are interested in going anywhere, or even parking, small is practical), are becoming obvious here just as they are in the UK.

In cities and towns like Lucknow the smart money is on the status quo in that it represents high fuel efficiency per capita and low cost. However things are far from perfect. If only people here would obey some kind of highway code things would operate even better. As it is, it appears to be the one in front who has the right of way and it seems that nobody ever signals, looks left, right, or in their mirror before manoeuvring! At times it just seems like survival of the fittest.


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